Tuesday, 24 December 2019

fairytale of the shay

It’s thirty years since my first visit to The Shay. Back then it was to take in Halifax Town vs Mansfield Town - a Super Sunday just waiting to happen, I know - and was the first proper game of football that I’d been to. 

That “gift” was from my Uncle, and given how it was that match that started this football thing, I consider giving him a bell to see if he’ll nip over and stump up the twenty quid admission I hand over on the turnstile. Love a traditional turnstile though, to be fair.

The heady aroma of pie and liberally-minted peas fills the air on my return visit, where it’s 7th v 12th in the National League as FC Halifax Town host a Notts County side whose plans of a return to League Two, pronto, perhaps haven’t gone as smoothly as the sizeable travelling contingent would have liked. Similarly, the home side, quickest out of the blocks over the summer, will probably be keen to put a stuttering Autumn behind them. 

Over the PA, Shane McGowan’s blethering on about it being Christmas Eve in the drunk tank when we’re invited to join in with a minute’s applause for the recently departed Jim “Bald Eagle” Smith. He played here for a while, and ‘Ol Jim, so the story goes, used to enjoy a pre-match beer in the local boozer before gracing the field.

During a sedate first half I ponder how a galvanising swifty or two may not be a bad idea for some current players of the game as a means to get the blood pumping and add a bit of spark. There are a couple of highlights, though. The first, when County’s Connell Rawlinson is given the Terry Butcher head bandage treatment. We all like a bit of that. And then, towards the end of the first 45, when Halifax go a goal up after Duckworth cuts in and his shot deflects off McCoulsky, wrong-footing the keeper. 

Cue: half-time and more of that Shane McGowan fella. 

Words, I reckon, have been had during the break, as both sides come back out and go at it with a bit of intent. We see three goals in 12 minutes - a Christmas miracle - with County levelling but Town soon regaining their lead with a cool finish from Allen, the nippy number 7.

Three minutes later a booming volley from County’s Mitch Rose makes it 2 apiece and has to be the pick of the day’s goals. Sweet finish, good player. Brother of Danny, apparently. 

Just as I’m thinking how much I like Town’s Josh Staunton - eager to get on the ball and spray it about - he gives away a penalty to make me look daft. Rose tucks in with ten minutes to go.

There’s no sulking from Halifax who chuck it all forward in a full-blooded effort to salvage a point, but the inevitable gaps at the back allow Notts County to grab a fourth with almost the last kick of the game. 

One more time, Shane McGowan.

FC Halifax Town 2

Notts County 4

I like it down here at The Shay. It’s a ground that may have been spruced up since that first visit three decades ago, but where there’s still an appealing bit of old-school about the place, too. I won’t leave it another 30 years.

Entry: £20

Pie notes: I arrive armed with a homemade mince pie. Frugal and seasonal.

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Thursday, 12 December 2019

unbeaten steeton

“This is big boy’s football” explains the Steeton keeper to an Atherton forward who’s just been on the receiving end of an enthusiastic “welcome to Keighley” challenge from a home defender. And the keeper’s not wrong. There might not be much in the way of the silky or of the slick to take the sting out of a starkly cold December afternoon at Cougar Park, but this is still, in its own way, an entertaining slog. 

After all, Steeton, who are starting the day propping up the North West Counties Division One North* table on 12 points and a sizeable minus 27 goal difference, need some points on the board, sharpish, if they want to continue at this level next season.

(*Administrative bodies for the lower leagues, I’ve learnt, much prefer geographical accuracy over brevity when naming their divisions.)

They’ll need a new spot to play at, too, having been served notice on their groundshare arrangement with the Keighley Cougars rugby league team. It's a shame, that. This old-school ground, with its wooden bench seating and well-populated, well-stocked and festively-decked bar, seems like a good match for a local football club trying to push on.

Look up “scrappy” in a future edition of the Oxford English Dictionary and the first half of Steeton AFC v Atherton Laburnum Rovers FC may well be referenced; beyond the floodlights hesitantly warming up there’s not much of note to report. Steeton certainly don’t look like the relegation fodder the table reflects, though, and are having as good a go as their Lancashire opposition. Aside from a flurry of home team corners and a couple of long-range free-kicks from right-back Tyler Marsh, sponsored by the illustrious Gail’s Ironing, goalmouth action is rare.

We’re treated to some early second half action though, when Atherton’s goalkeeper cleans up an advancing forward and Steeton are awarded a penalty. Ben Clarkson, not dissimilar in stature to that lad who went from working in the Co-op down the road to a couple of trips to Wembley, sweeps in the spot-kick.

It’s a 1-0 lead that Steeton valiantly defend for much of the remaining half, and despite Atherton turning the screws it looks like this could be Steeton’s day – and 3 points – when the away team miss what looks from my seat in the Danny Jones stand like an open goal.

Afraid not. Atherton heads refuse to drop, and their huff and puff pays off when Nathan Strong – a lively threat all afternoon – gets space in the box and grabs a late equaliser. Steeton might see this as two points dropped but, for a more positive spin, it’s also the third match on the bounce from which they’ve taken points. And - yes, let’s bung a cliché in here - there’s still a lot of football to be played.

Steeton AFC 1

Atherton Laburnum Rovers FC 1

Admission: £4

Pie notes: 2 quid yer steak pie. Rich of beef and golden of pastry. Thoroughly foiled. Good work.

Here’s why I’m having a year watching non-league football.

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